Early most mornings my wife Joy, our dog Gracie, and I leave our neighborhood by foot to walk among the longleaf pines of the Kisatchie National Forest. Onyx lives at the next to the last house before we hit the winding, two-lane road that takes us into the woods.
Our initial encounters with Onyx were unpleasant. We heard him before we saw him.
His rapid, high-pitched bark warned us that we were not welcome. A black and dirty-gray mass of wiry, matted hair darted toward us from the dark. His short legs ran mad circles around us, yapping, and swooping in to nip at our heels until we had passed beyond his yard.
On each successive walk, we set off the Onyx alarm. We weren’t intimidated by Onyx. He may weigh fifteen pounds, but his untamed coat makes it hard to tell. Still, his frantic barking and nipping put a serious dent in what was supposed to be a contemplative walk to welcome the break of day.
Initially, we ignored him and hoped he would get used to us. Or at the very least get bored with barking at the same people over and over. No luck.
Next, I used an Alpha voice and gave him common commands to get Onyx to back off.
“Switch to decaf.”
Bark. Dash. Nip.
Things began to change when we learned the dog’s name. One morning his human scurried out of his house, still in his pajamas, and scooped the dog up.
“Sorry,” he said. “He’s a rescue.” We chatted a moment and I asked my neighbor what he called his dog.
“Onyx,” he said.
Beginning the next morning I greeted our little antagonist with a cheerful, “Good morning, Onyx! You’re a good boy!”
In gentle, soothing tones I’ll say, “It’s just us. I’m glad to good to see you.”
Bark. Dash. Nip. Day after day. Nothing changed. Joy and Gracie rolled their eyes. At me, not Onyx.
And then one morning Onyx trotted to within a few yards, acknowledged us with a glance, walked parallel with us for a minute or so, and found something more interesting to do. That’s his new pattern.
I interpret his behavior to mean that our presence no longer threatens him. He doesn’t have to protect his turf. He doesn’t fear that we’ll harm him or anyone in his human pack.
Now this is a sweet story, and you might expect me to stop there. To turn to musing about love’s power to build relationship and to change our world. And while I believe that love—and only love—can change the deep rhythms of this world, I’m aware that such love can come at a cost.
Love is risky, because powerful and often violent forces prefer this world the way it is. They like it just fine, because they are on top. And those forces will do whatever is necessary to retain their positions of privilege. Their power, status, and wealth.
You see, just as I was beginning to feel like the patron saint of Dog Whispering—a regular icon of the transformational power of love—I imagined how I would have responded to Onyx had he been a Rottweiler. Or maybe a Pit Bull.
These large, muscular breeds have been unfairly stereotyped as aggressive and dangerous. They can be remarkably loving. But we’ve all heard stories of such dogs being abused. And if a powerful, eighty pound dog charged at me from out of the dark, I would feel threatened. And I might react aggressively myself.
And that’s a problem.
You see, I follow Jesus. And Jesus walked the way of love, because he believed that God would change everything through his unflinching loving. He didn’t love when it was easy or convenient or rewarding. He loved all the way to the cross. He loved from the cross itself. Even those who nailed him to it.
What’s hard for us to get our head around is that Jesus teaches us to love even though he knows full well that our love will not always result in moonbeams and rainbows. He was realistic. The kind of love Jesus inhabits threatens people. It makes them anxious. Because it changes the world.
The hungry are fed, the blind see, and the lame are empowered to take up their own mats and hit the road. Jesus forgives the unrepentant and loves his most lethal enemies. His way of loving is turning the world upside down.
No wonder some rogue Pharisees try to shut Jesus down with threats that Herod is gunning for him. Most Pharisees were a deeply faithful lot, forerunners of today’s rabbis. But this bunch were phonies, cozying up to corrupt Israelite stooges for the Romans like Herod. These charlatans sere out to get a little taste of privilege for themselves.
So, in cahoots with Herod, they use their habitual strategy to protect their status. They threaten violence to run Jesus off and shut him up. Or what would serve their purposes just as well or even better, they might tempt him into reacting aggressively himself. Getting Jesus to use violence would make him just one more of them. Their world would remain intact.
But Jesus confounded them with resilient love. Here’s what the message he sent back to Herod: “I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” (Luke 13:31-35)
In other words, “Do what you have to do. But I’m going to keep on loving. I’m going to make people whole and heal the world the only way that works. Love.”
Jesus knew where all of this was heading: the cross. Eventually, the Romans would execute him. He threatened them. Not like a rival empire, but as a power that dismantles every empire. A power that will make the last first and the first last. A power that makes everyone equal as the beloved children of God. That power is love.
As Martin Luther King put it, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Jesus could be resilient, he could keep loving—even in the face of suffering and death—because he knew that the love flowing through him had its source in God. That love will overcome even the very worst that empires can throw at it. Even death itself.
Jesus calls you and me to follow his example of resilient love. To love even when it seems fruitless or even painful. He’s not telling us to be strong so that we will win God’s approval.
Instead, Jesus is calling us to a startling trust. To the trust that the love that flows through us issues from God. And God’s love is the decisive, world-changing power.
We are not asked to change the world. We are called to participate in God’s love as it changes the world.
That change will not be completed in our lifetime. And sometimes it may seem that the good we and those before us have done is giving way to forces of selfish darkness. But Jesus teaches us to keep loving.
In many seasons of our lives, the love that shines the brightest is a resilient love.